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Tales of Decline: Reading Social Pathology into Individual Suicide in South India

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In the south Indian state of Kerala, the nation’s so-called suicide capital, suicide can often appear self-evident in meaning and motivation to casual onlookers and experts alike. Drawing on explanatory accounts, rumors, and speculative tales of suicide collected between 2004 and 2007, this article explores the ontological power of certain deaths to assert themselves as always-already known on the basis of perceived and reported demographic patterns of suicide. I demonstrate the ways suicides are commonly read, less through the distinct details of their individual case presentations than “up” to broader scales of social pathology. Shaped by the intertwined histories of public health intervention and state taxonomic knowledge in India, these “epidemic readings” of suicide enact a metonymy between individual suffering and ideas of collective decline that pushes the suicide case to fit—and thus to stand for—aggregate trends at the level of populations. Focusing on how family navigated the generic meanings and motivations ascribed to the deaths of their loved ones, I argue that the ability of kin to resist, collude with, or strategically deploy epidemic readings in their search for truth and closure hinged significantly on their classed fluency in the social, legal, and bureaucratic discourses of suicide.

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  1. The names of all interlocutors have been altered to preserve anonymity.

  2. For example, a news article on suicide in Kerala titled “Ending Lives the Easy Way” states: “Take the case of this little boy in Noornad, the village which tops the suicide charts. He simply jumped into the well because his mother refused to buy him a new pair of slippers. This incident happened a few years ago.”

  3. According to the Kerala State Mental Health Authority (KSMHA), which compiles its data from state and national crime statistics, at their peak, Kerala’s suicide rates have exceeded 30 per 100,000, but have seen an overall decrease since 2003. Variations across and within state districts can be considerable. In Thiruvananthapuram district, the suicide rate jumped from 17.2 per 100,000 in 1995 to as high as 41.4 in 2001. For more statistics, see

  4. Following the lead of mental health activists in Kerala, I utilize the term “family-murder suicide” rather than “family suicide” to emphasize that these group acts often involve coercion or murder of others by one or two family members. Family murder–suicides have been on the rise since the 1990s in Kerala. In 2007, the state accounted for 39 of 100 cases nationwide, followed by Andhra Pradesh, which reported 34 (National Crime Records Bureau, Government of India).

  5. As the home of the first democratically elected communist government in the world, Kerala first attracted international visibility through the lens of its Marxist politics. This shifted in the 1970s as development scholars and economists in the West began to look upon Kerala as an “object of fascination” (Jeffrey 1992: ix). Impressive social indicators including falling birth and infant mortality rates, average life expectancies rivaling those of the United States, and high literacy rates among men and women had been achieved in Kerala despite the state’s relatively low level of economic development. Sustained political mobilization and organized struggle throughout the twentieth century, together with the state’s commitment to redistributive development, led to one of the most extensive welfare states in the global south by the end of World War II. Debates originating among local scholars in the 1990s have questioned the sustainability, merits, and achievements of the so-called Kerala Model.

  6. For more on the relationship between suicide, everyday life, and neoliberal shifts, see Livingston 2009; Parry 2012; Staples 2012b.

  7. The bulk of the research for this project was conducted over a twenty-three month period between 2005 and 2007. The project involved participant observation at two clinical sites, and interviews with mental health professionals, family counselors, state officials, educators, parents, and attempters and family survivors of suicide. I also conducted interviews and oral life histories with young adults.

  8. This recalls Gayatri Spivak’s ambivalent account of the suicide of female freedom fighter Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri. Knowing that her death would be deemed as the outcome of illegitimate passion, Bhaduri waited until the onset of menstruation before hanging herself.

  9. The success of state-sponsored family planning campaigns in Kerala is one example (Devika 2002).

  10. In certain instances these categories have been modified to reflect more contemporary issues and concerns, as in the subcategories of “illness” which now include “AIDS/STD” and “cancer.” Even at the regional level, these categories are not easily modified. During fieldwork I learned of efforts by non-profit and other civil society organizations to petition for changes to these categories as a means of bringing light to dimensions of the suicide problem in the state otherwise neglected. A formal petition, ultimately declined, was put forth several years ago by the clinical psychologists associated with a Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO to include “homosexuality” as an authorized cause.

  11. For instance, while the suicides of children organizes considerable fear and anxiety in public and expert discourse (Chua 2011), in 2009 the KSMHA reports that less than 1 percent of suicides were committed by children 14 years of age and younger.

  12. Rajani Anand’s suicide, reportedly motivated by her inability to secure a loan to continue her college studies, was positioned by opposition leaders and others as a symbol of the costs of privatized education in the state.

  13. I thank Tom Widger and James Staples for helping me to elaborate on this point.

  14. Dowry death was created as a new offense under section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code. Section 113-A was also added to the Indian Evidence Act to raise the presumption of abetment of suicide against the husband or his relatives if the wife commits suicide within the first seven years of marriage and there is evidence that she has been subjected to cruelty. Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code was also amended to require authorities to conduct a postmortem investigation into every case involving the suicide or death of a woman within a period of seven years from her date of marriage. See Mohite and Chavan 1993 for more information.

  15. Among my interlocutors, the method of killing oneself by jumping from heights or on the railway tracks, for example, was coded as “male” while nonfatal self-harm in the domestic space was coded as “female,” differences that appear to be borne out by reported patterns of suicide. But the gendering of suicide is also bolstered by ideologies about lethality and gender. The notion that women are less inclined toward violent methods—their preference for taking pills rather than jumping from heights, for example—was often read as a sign of women’s “natural” aversion to violence.

  16. The English word “line” is slang for a romantic relationship outside of marriage.

  17. I thank an anonymous review for highlighting this point and encouraging me to develop it further.

  18. Although explanatory accounts of suicide in social and bureaucratic discourse were typically and principally “social” in nature, this was not necessarily to the complete exclusion of medical discourse. For example, family problems taken to be the root cause of a suicide might be seen as the precipitating condition for depression leading in turn to suicide.


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My deep gratitude goes to the families in Thiruvananthapuram who generously shared their stories, and opened their lives and homes to me. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful guidance and suggestions. Special thanks also go to James Staples, Tom Widger, Matthew Kohrman, Sylvia Yanagisako, Silvia Tomášková, Jean Dennison, and Anna Agbe-Davies for their readings of earlier drafts and insightful comments. The research on which this article is based was conducted with the support of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

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Correspondence to Jocelyn Lim Chua.

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Chua, J.L. Tales of Decline: Reading Social Pathology into Individual Suicide in South India. Cult Med Psychiatry 36, 204–224 (2012).

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